MY last visit to Beinn Alligin started under clear skies and a beautiful January full moon and ended prematurely when I was forced to retreat in a blizzard.
That was three years ago: a return in more favourable conditions was long overdue. Now here I was sweating my way uphill in the late afternoon heat, going against the flow.
The timing was deliberate, a concession to walking at weekends. Starting later means many walkers would have already been and gone. That means less hassle finding a parking space as well as avoiding the hottest part of the day.
The initial climb into Coir nan Laogh was busy but the traffic was all one-way. Everyone I spoke to had done one or both of the Munros – Tom na Gruagaich and Sgurr Mhor – and were reversing their ascent route. Not one had fancied completing the horseshoe circuit by going over Na Rathanan, the three spectacular rocky towers known as the Horns of Alligin.
The summit trig pillar of Tom na Gruagaich is perched on the edge of a precipitous drop and the first impression when reaching it is revelatory. Suddenly, all the Torridon giants are laid out before you, every peak, every gully, every contour. The plunging neckline of the second and higher Munro, Sgurr Mhor, looms large across the corrie with the prominent, deep, dark cleft splitting its face top to bottom the one beautiful flaw in an otherwise perfect sweep.
This is the Eag Dhubh na h-Eigheachd, the black gash of the wailing, where those curious enough to investigate screams heard coming from its depths would inevitably fall to their deaths. The legend adds to the slightly haunting feeling of standing staring into these uninterrupted depths in a cooling evening breeze with not another soul around. On the way round, I did meet another couple coming back from the beehive cairn of Sgurr Mhor. They had also decided not to cross the Horns.
The feeling of solitude increased dramatically with the deep drop down to the next col. Baosbheinn rose majestically above the lochan-studded floor of the glen, its humped skyline staking a claim as the Torridon rival to Nessie, somewhat fitting for the corrie of the beast.
The Horns now loomed. It had been many years since I had last been along them but that was with zero visibility and in experienced company. I didn't remember any problems, but then I didn't remember much at all. With silence and emptiness all around, I began to feel more aware of being alone, especially at this time of day. I also began to wonder if everyone else had the right idea and that it was me who was out of step.
The first Horn seemed to soar vertically, the way ahead through a fragmented sequence of little rocky walls and terraces. Route finding, as always, would be the key. At one point, going up seemed impossible so I started following a worn path along the side of the slope. It quickly became apparent that this could lead to a more perilous position, so I returned to the initial problem. This time, I found a previously unseen foothold which lifted me to a clear route to the summit.
The route along the rooftop was airy but simple. There is a high-level path below the crest which avoids the tops of the Horns, but like the bypass on Liathach, it is narrow, can be slippery and lacks reassuring handholds, especially where it crosses gullies. The safer and surer way ahead is to stick to the heights.
The descent from the first Horn needed a little handiwork, and there was one less than obvious move on the climb to the second which needed some thought. The biggest surprise came on the drop off No.2. Both options were a little tricky. One involved getting down to a rock ledge with a slight overhang but the holds were lacking and there was an unsettling gap below; I chose the other which involved a short climb down with a final slide of about five feet off an angled boulder.
The cairn which marks the end of the traverse and the start of the path down to Coire Mhic Nobuil was bathed in shafts of gold, the huge faces behind me now in silhouette as the sun began its descent. The route down was more time-consuming and harder on the old bones than I had remembered as well, more a series of rock steps with traces of path in between. It wasn't difficult, just not what was expected.
I arrived back to the empty car park around 9pm, then drove round to Shieldaig to watch the sunset. After that aborted ascent three years ago, I had ended up sitting in the same place watching the incoming storm batter the windows. It seems that even when circumstances are so different, they invariably end the same way.